Mavis Staples’ ‘If All I Was Was Black’
When legendary soul singer Mavis Staples got together with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy earlier this year to work on her next solo album, they were both on a mission. “We knew what we wanted to sing about,” Staples told me last week. “We knew what was going on. We knew what was happening in our White House and neither of us like it.”
The resulting album, If All I Was Was Black, was released yesterday and it’s a potent mix of righteous indignation, gentle persuasion and a healthy dose of common sense.
This is the third album Tweedy has produced for Staples, a collaboration that began in 2010 with the Grammy-winning You Are Not Alone, followed by the gospel-inflected One True Vine three years later. What distinguishes If All I Was Was Black from those two is that Tweedy has composed every song this time, rather than just a few. “He asked me to come over to the Wilco loft,” Staples told me. “And he had written some songs he wanted me to hear, oh, about five of the songs, and I liked every one of ’em. And I said, ‘Well, let’s get busy, Jeff, let’s get busy.’ Maybe a month later, we went in the studio.”
With the opening song, “Little Bit”, this album gets busy straightaway. Based on a relaxed, loping feel using a primitive drum machine loop and a snaking guitar riff, the benign mood of the music doesn’t prepare you for the pointed lyrics:
Poor kid, they caught him
Without his licence
That ain’t why they shot him
They say he was fighting
So, that’s what we’re told
But we all know
That ain’t how the story goes
A little bit too high, a little bit too bold
A little bit out of line
Now my baby won’t make it home.
The folksy groove keeps chugging away incongruously, almost as if it were ignoring the violence being re-enacted. The pressure only eases in the last verse, with a hopeful recipe for change.
“Little Bit” doesn’t specifically mention race but it is implicit to the story, given that we hear it from Staples’ viewpoint. However, the title track confronts that thorny subject head on. In “If All I Was Was Black” Staples asks, “Don’t you want to know me more than that?”, pointing out the ways racism operates when it’s less overt, before concluding on the positive note, “And it’s time for more love.” When I interviewed the singer, I confessed this song’s final line had almost brought tears to my eyes. Staples knew what I meant. “That’s right,” she said. “That’s what we need, we need love, you know, because it’s a shame that we’re so divided. We’re so divided.”
“Build a Bridge” is Staples’ attempt to heal that division, and is another song with a powerful message. For those who are nonplussed by the Black Lives Matter movement or are oblivious to unconscious racism, this verse could provide some insight:
When I say my life matters,
You can say yours does too
But I bet you never have to remind anyone
To look at it from your point of view
Gotta build a bridge right over the mountain
Gotta build a bridge right over the sea
Gonna build a bridge right over the ocean
So you can walk back over to me
Look around at our country
At the people we don’t ever see
Standing side by side us, divided,
Lonely in the land of the free
I’m gonna pull the shades off of my window
I’m gonna let the sunlight right in
I’m gonna open my heart to a stranger
I think I know where to begin.
I’m not ashamed to admit this final couplet also made my eyes a little misty. The idea of seeking common ground is not particularly earth-shattering or novel, but it has never been more pertinent than now.
Donald Trump’s name is nowhere to be found in the lyrics on If All I Was Was Black, partly to frustrate Trump’s unquenchable thirst for attention, but his presidency casts a pall over much of the album. “Sometimes I feel like I’m living in the ’60s,” Staples says. “It’s like it’s starting all over again – and we know why … Every song on this album is about what is happening in the world today, and mainly what’s happening in our White House, because I feel that this president that we have is an instigator for bigotry and hate.” Particularly abhorrent to Staples is the re-emergence of white power rhetoric into the conservative mainstream. “These men were marching through this city, Charlottesville, and they had torches, the way the Ku Klux Klan used to do, and the only thing different was they didn’t have the white sheets over their heads, you know? So it was just the Ku Klux Klan all over again.”
Mavis Staples has vivid memories of touring the southern United States in the early ’60s, when segregation was at its height. Now 78 years old, Staples first sang in public when she was eight as part of her family’s gospel group, The Staple Singers. Led by her father, Roebuck Staples, better known as Pops, The Staple Singers quickly developed a following around Chicago, but in 1956, when Mavis was just 17, their fame spread nationwide after “Uncloudy Day” became a surprise R&B crossover hit, selling more than a million copies. By 1965 their concert sets featured a lot of protest songs alongside the gospel material, some composed by Pops himself. As a result, they became closely associated with the burgeoning civil rights movement and their songs became anthems for the freedom marches being led by their new-found friend and lifelong inspiration Dr Martin Luther King.
Later, they signed a deal with Stax Records, where they enjoyed the biggest hits of their career with message songs such as “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There”. Pops always told any songwriters that if they wanted to write for The Staple Singers they should just “read the headlines”, a philosophy that Staples and Tweedy have taken to heart on this album. “Try Harder”, “No Time for Crying” and “Who Told You That” sound like vintage Stax-era Staple Singers songs. “We can’t help it,” Staples told me. “We can’t get away from it because I am a Staple Singer. And Jeff Tweedy, he admitted it. He’s even playing some of Pops’ licks in ‘Peaceful Dream’… I even had the background [harmony] close it the way The Staple Singers used to close our songs.” She then sings the final words of the song down the phone, drawing out the last syllable with a long, soulful slide back to the tonic note: “Come and share my peace-fu-ul dreeeeeeam.”
The Staple Singers’ gospel and soul always had a hint of country blues, something that can be traced back to Pops Staples’ Mississippi Delta roots, where he was taught guitar by Howlin’ Wolf and Charley Patton. One of this album’s highlights is the disarmingly modest “Ain’t No Doubt About It”, a lilting duet between Staples and Tweedy that for some reason reminds me of countrified Dylan, someone with a long association with Staples and who even proposed marriage to her. “Ain’t No Doubt About It” starts with Staples singing the first verse and Tweedy the second, and they take alternate couplets in the third. The final verse has them singing in unison:
Every time I get worried
When I don’t know what to do
I think of all the things I worried about
How few of them ever came true
If that don’t work, I call on you.
Staples told me that although the song appears to be two people addressing each other in a duet, there is another possibility. “It could go either way,” she says. “It could be that Tweedy and I are singing to each other, or we’re singing to the world.” When I remarked that I could hear gospel in it, too, she replied, “I tell people that I am a gospel singer and anything I sing, if I sing a love song, you gonna hear some gospel in it, you’re gonna hear some gospel flavour. But ‘Ain’t No Doubt About It’ is, we’re singing, you know, ‘I’ll always be your friend’, that’s just singing to the world, ‘Let’s come together and let’s be friends, and let’s love one another’, you know? And I’m telling you that, ain’t no doubt about it, I’m always here for you. I’ll always be here.” Those words struck me deeply because I felt Mavis Staples wasn’t just talking about this one song, she was summing up her life’s work.
The final song on the album, “All Over Again”, puts those thoughts into song.
Time is slow and the world gets cold
Sometimes I have regrets but I ain’t done yet
I’d do it all over again
With the stars all closing in
I’d set out on the old ocean
I’d dream the same dreams
I’d do the same things
My friend, I’d do it all over again
All over again.
Tweedy is paying overt tribute to the Staples family’s legacy in his songwriting for If All I Was Was Black, but the resemblance starts and ends there for a couple of practical reasons. First, it’s impossible to replicate the unique studio sound of The Swampers, the celebrated house band from the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio that played on many of those classic Stax recordings in the early ’70s. Tweedy doesn’t even try. Second, the, dare I say it, Wilco-ish approach of this album’s arrangements is far more subdued and rough-and-ready than the down-home tightness of The Swampers. It’s a choice Tweedy was forced to make, but he’s turned it into an asset. This is no Ronsonesque high-concept production that appropriates old music using new technology. This is simply a collection of simpatico musicians with something important to say, making music organically and without fuss, for each other and for us. That will never get old.
This is a truly great album, but it’s also more than that: it’s a bridge to a civil rights struggle that never really ended. “I’m telling you, my heart aches that I have to sing these types of songs at this time in my life,” Staples laments. “I’ve done this all my life and we thought we were wrappin’ up.” She laughs ruefully. “We thought we had it wrapped, you know? I’m just grateful that the Lord has kept me: I’m still here and I still have my voice and I can still sing the songs that needed to be heard in times like these. And like you said, you almost cried. I cry a lot.”
VISUAL ART Making History: Nolan at the Newsagent
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, until May 20
THEATRE Vivid White
Southbank Theatre, Melbourne, until December 23
DANCE NAISDA: Restoration
Carriageworks, Sydney, November 22-25
MUSIC Queenscliff Music Festival
Princes Park, Queenscliff, November 24-26
COMEDY Hannah Gadsby: Nanette
Arts Centre, Melbourne, until November 25
THEATRE ROOMAN – Fleur Elise Noble
Arts House, Melbourne, November 21-26
VISUAL ART Midwarr/Harvest
National Museum of Australia, Canberra, November 24-February 18
THEATRE Brideshead Revisited
Goodwood Theatre, Adelaide, until November 25
VISUAL ART René Magritte: The Revealing Image
Latrobe Regional Gallery, Morwell, until November 19
DANCE Dancing Around the World
Brisbane Powerhouse, until November 19
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 17, 2017 as "Gospel truths". Subscribe here.